Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood remains one of the most iconic children’s TV shows in American history. And the eponymous star of the show, Fred Rogers himself, is among the most beloved of all cultural personalities. His passing in 2003 left a void. For his widow Joanne, certainly, Rogers was irreplaceable, although she has spoken poignantly about the secrets that kept their 50-year marriage so wonderfully alive.
Joanne continues to remember her husband – and so does America. Interest in the presenter rocketed once more upon the release of a 2019 movie starring Tom Hanks which focused on the beloved TV show host. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was a success, revealing that the country still had a taste for all things Rogers. If anything, his message is more important than ever.
Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood ran for 31 years between 1968 and 2001, when the last episode was aired. In that time Rogers had continued to charm audiences with his simple storylines featuring puppets and music. The presenter did much of the work, including the presenting, puppetry and composing of songs himself, and was always famously resplendent in his trademark cardigan.
Rogers’ gentle manner charmed all those who watched the iconic show. Above all, he displayed amazing empathy for his audience. The storylines spoke directly to the children watching and helped them by dealing with issues such as fear and anger. Love and respect was a central theme. In its heyday, about 8 percent of the nation tuned in.
While Rogers’ TV career spanned nearly half a century, his marriage surpassed even that. And his wife Joanne has continued his legacy since his death. But as well as championing causes close to both her and husband’s heart, she has revealed some of the elements that made her marriage to “her best friend” such a success. Some are surprising. All are endearing.
Rogers and Joanne first set eyes on each other way back in 1948. The meeting only took place because Rogers was on the cusp of transferring schools. Rogers, then of Dartmouth College, decided to take a look at Rollins College down in Florida. To help make his decision, Rogers was met by a friendly group of Rollins students, including Joanne.
The two young students obviously liked what they saw. Rogers went ahead and transferred to the school near Orlando and a relationship, of sorts, blossomed. “I must say, we were just good friends,” Joanne later said. “We didn’t do much dating, as such. We all ran around in a group… But I think we thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company,” she told newspaper The Baltimore Sun.
Rogers and Joanne regularly hung out together at Rollins. And one of their favorite activities to do together was dance. “He was a marvelous dancer, a fabulous dancer! So I would ask him to our sorority dances, and he would ask me to his fraternity dances,” Joanne remembered, again as told to The Baltimore Sun.
Yet as so often happens with young romances, Rogers and Joanne were pulled apart by circumstance. Joanne completed her studies at Rollins a year before Rogers and headed off to complete a master’s degree at Florida State University in Tallahassee. She was now situated more than a couple of hundred miles away from Rollins, and her love prospect.
That, as they say, could so easily have been that. Rogers completed his music composition studies at Rollins in 1951 – Joanne came back to attend his graduation – but from there the young man set off for New York City to take up a role working for NBC. For Joanne, it was back to the books.
Fortunately for the budding couple, the connection could be maintained. Despite being from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the Rogers family sometimes holidayed in Florida. And it was a family vacation – minus the recently graduated Rogers – to the Sunshine State in 1951 that inspired the next step in the relationship between the young couple.
Joanne decided to pay a visit to the Rogers family on their vacation. But she was accompanied by another young man: her graduate instructor’s son. It was a move that could well have been the motivating factor in what happened next. For Rogers sent Joanne a letter: a pretty monumental missive.
It was April 1952. Joanne had already learnt from previous correspondence that Rogers was dating other girls while the two were so far apart at different colleges. But the next letter that Joanne was to receive contained much happier news in terms of their relationship. For Rogers wrote asking for Joanne’s hand in marriage.
There was no doubt about the answer Joanne would give. She rushed to a nearby public telephone and dialed up Rogers. She was so nervous that she inadvertently read out loud some graffiti that was written on the booth instead of offering a more conventional greeting. Despite the accidental swearing, she managed to accept Rogers’ proposal.
Within three months the couple were married; so began a romance that was to last for the rest of Rogers’ life. When he sadly passed away in 2003 at the age of 74 after suffering a short illness, Joanne was heartbroken. Yet their 50 years of marriage had produced two sons, two grandchildren, and many wonderful memories.
Since Rogers’ passing, Joanne has been actively involved in many of the organizations that continue her husband’s legacy. At times she has also spoken candidly about their relationship and what it was like being married to “Mister Rogers”. In fact, she has revealed many of the secrets that made their love so enduring and successful.
Born Sara Joanne Byrd, but known as Joanne, the wife of Fred Rogers is a successful woman in her own right. As well as being a mother-of-two and a bright music student, Joanne went on to become a concert pianist and is also on the board of trustees at her alma mater, Rollins College.
But Joanne has long since accepted that she will forever be known as the wife of Fred Rogers. John Sinclair, a friend of the couple, perhaps summed it up best when he told The Baltimore Sun that Joanne “is a person who has lived in the wings and done it so graciously.” But that’s not all. “She is not only incredibly supportive of Fred, she is very much a person in her own right. She is as unique as Fred is – they’re a formidable pair,” Sinclair added.
Joanne also knew that she had to project a certain persona as the wife of one of America’s most beloved children’s TV personalities. “It’s difficult to live with an image. Sometimes I want to do something impulsive, silly, adolescent. But then for Fred’s sake, I say, ‘Don’t do that!’” she told People magazine many years ago.
As well as knowing and accepting their roles within the marriage, there were other elements which contributed to Rogers’ and Joanne’s love story. For a start, they shared a sense of humor. The couple had an oft-repeated phrase that they shared: “This makes my sweet ass smile.” They laughed together as much as they could.
The pair were also able to share their feelings. “In his young days, he was lively and full of fun… but he talked about his feelings, and I could talk about my feelings to him,” Joanne said when appearing as a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2018. In that respect, Rogers was a man ahead of his time, perhaps.
Joanne was certainly aware of how lucky she was. Rogers’ ability to share his emotions was important to their relationship. “Fred was a very sensitive person, and tears were available to him. I used to say, ‘You’re my liberated man, and I think it’s just wonderful,’” she once told the Los Angeles Times newspaper.
A particular decision that served the Rogers well was waiting to have children after their nuptials. “We waited until we were married about seven years before our kids came along. And I’ve always been glad of that, because we knew that the marriage was going to be okay,” Joanne was quoted as saying in the Maxwell King-authored work The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers.
And it was rare – if ever – that the couple got angry with each other. But as Joanne herself admitted, that wasn’t always ideal. “We never got mad at each other that much – that we could express well,” she acknowledged. “We just got quiet. Both of us handled it that way, and that’s not the best way. It’s good to yell sometimes,” she again told the Los Angeles Times.
Joanne also played an active role in Rogers’ work. Not only was one of the characters in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – Queen Sara – named after her, but she actually voiced some of the objects in Rogers’ earlier TV work. Later on, her piano playing was featured in the hit show, and the couple’s two sons also appeared.
Joanne also shared the opinion that the couple, despite their fame, should live a relatively frugal life. Rogers never sought to commercialize his famous show or himself, and the couple were known to only drive second-hand cars and even pepper their home with furniture that wasn’t new. It was just another element in which the pair were in agreement.
Yet it is also clear, from what her friends say, that Joanne is generous with her attention and time. “She remembers the things in your life, and she remembers the things you’re worried about and she calls to see how things are going,” a pal, Rita Bornstein, told The Baltimore Sun. “Mister Rogers” may well have been famed for his empathy and kindness, but it seems his wife is every bit as warm-hearted. The couple were peas in a pod.
But there was even more to this delightful couple, for they shared a passion. “Fred was a really, really fine musician. It was part of him. It was maybe the most important part of him, was his music. It was the part he enjoyed the most, I think,” Joanne stated in an interview during a Tedx event posted on YouTube in January 2019.
At the same event, Joanne spoke more about the connection she and her husband shared. “Music meant a lot to both of us. We had that in common and we talked often about, you know, how do people live without music,” Joanne added in the same interview. Fortunately, the couple were mostly able to follow their passions throughout their lives.
Joanne, despite being better known as “Mrs Rogers,” worked for many years as a concert pianist and music teacher. Both she and her husband studied music at college, and it was, of course, Rogers’ desire to continue his musical education that saw him transfer to Rollins College in the first place. Later on, Rogers famously composed more than 200 songs for his hit TV show. Among them was the program’s iconic theme tune “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
And there was one more special ingredient that the couple’s marriage possessed. And that ingredient was actually a number. The number 143. “Oh, there’s so many ways – you’ll find them – to say 1-4-3,” Rogers once sang on his show. But what did the enigmatic code signify? In that same, classic episode, Rogers explains it to Mr McFeely. “One is ‘I’. Four – ‘L-O-V-E’. Three – ‘Y-O-U’. I love you,” the host says.
The number 143 has become intrinsically linked with Rogers. In fact, the number has become so synonymous that in 2019, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf declared the 143rd day of the year – May 23 – as ‘1-4-3 Day’, to honor Rogers. It was “Pennsylvania’s first state-wide day of kindness,” Wolf tweeted.
There is little doubt that it was the message that the number 143 represented – “I love you” – that was at the heart of Rogers’ relationship with his beloved wife Joanne. The latter confirmed as much in an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. The host asked Joanne if Rogers’ use of the number was a little wink to his wife. “Oh yes,” she responded. But “He [Rogers] had enough love to go around,” she also admitted.
Yet there was one other little secret connected with 143. Surprisingly, it was the weight in pounds that Rogers tried to maintain for the entirety of his life. The TV host, who was an enthusiastic swimmer, tried to tip the scales at that exact weight every morning of his life. “The man was made of love,” Karen Struble Myers, a spokeswoman for the Fred Rogers Center, once said of the coincidence.
Rogers and Joanne shared this love for over half a century. In fact, the happy couple had only recently celebrated 50 years of marriage when Rogers fell ill. He died peacefully at home in February 2003. And as Joanne tells it, even the end was indicative of the “Mister Rogers” so many had grown up with and loved. “I could feel he went at peace and even with joy. I really feel he went with joy.”
Yet Rogers’ legacy lives on. In fact, it is arguably stronger than ever thanks to a high-profile Hollywood movie that partly tells the story of the legendary TV star and his iconic show. And Joanne is a fan of actor Tom Hanks’ portrayal of her husband. “One of the most wonderful things about this film is that Tom Hanks is playing Fred Rogers. Fred Rogers was a huge fan of Tom Hanks,” she told People. “He [Hanks] looks adorable as Fred,” she added.
Joanne also notes that the film’s message is particularly topical in today’s world. “I think he [Rogers] would like this very much. There’s a wonderful energy there. It’s a very needful film right now,” Joanne told People magazine. Critics agreed as the movie was shortlisted for a host of awards. Hanks, as “Mister Rogers”, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
If the movie gave modern audiences a glimpse of the charm of Rogers, younger audiences are also able to enjoy the legacy. PBS’s Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, made by Fred Rogers Productions, is a cartoon which features the children of the original puppets who starred in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It has proven popular with children, while continuing to promote Rogers’ trademark sensitivity and empathy.
Joanne continues to be busy as a major player in Fred Rogers Productions. She is also hands-on at the Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent’s College in Latrobe, and has contributed to other Fred Rogers-based projects such as books. She also talks about her late husband in interviews, keen to keep her husband’s message alive.
The world misses Fred Rogers. Joanne, of course, misses him too. But she is acutely aware that, in many ways, the work of her much-loved husband is as relevant now as it ever was. Joanne too, in her own understated way, is an inspiration. For as one half of a couple who enjoyed such a successful and enduring marriage, her little insights can surely be of help to anyone seeking to keep love alive.